There's nothing more exciting for guitarists than finding a good distortion pedal, especially one that sounds crushing and is affordable. Distortion is one of those mandatory pedals you’ll need as a glorious boost for rhythms, solos and — most importantly — to summon the gods of feedback.
Keep in mind that distortion pedals can range anywhere from fuzzy to clipped, articulate to unrefined, muscular to flabby and occasionally overdriven to gobs of gain, so it’ll take a bit of research and some discerning ears on your part to find the one that suits your playing style.
I know guitarists often scrape by when it comes to gear, so while I believe you no longer have to spend a lot of dough to get inspiring tone, I must admit you should stretch your dollar further because some of the better stuff can be had for around a C-note.
But for those of us who have to tighten our budget belts, I’m presenting you the five best distortions for under $50. Be sure to check out the photos in the photo gallery below.
1. Jet City Amplification Shockwave Distortion, $49.99
I’m a big fan of Jet City Amps because their amps are designed by amp guru Mike Soldano, who is regarded as one of the pioneers of high-gain amplification; so naturally, this pedal captures that Soldano-in-a-box tone. The Shockwave has plenty of gain and its distortion is smooth and full of character, making this pedal a true tone champion.
2. Visual Sound GarageTone Series Chainsaw Distortion, $49.95
The Chainsaw is a full-sounding gain pedal that’s more on the ruder side of distortion. Many guys will dig this distortion because of its firm and unforgiving character that doesn’t wish to be tamed. It’s a little flabby on the low end, but nobody ever faulted Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top for that sound.
3. Boss DS-1 Distortion Pedal, $39.99
I started with this pedal and it’s a favorite of Joe Satriani and Steve Vai, and if you need any further persuasion, Satriani based his signature VOX Satchurator pedal on a DS-1. This pedal is rugged, takes abuse willingly, and the one I've owned since the eighties is still going strong. A solid distortion that works well for soloing, the DS-1 is not without some issues; it is fizzy-sounding and a bit granular on its own but paired with a great overdrive pedal like the BOSS SD-1 Super Overdrive ($59.99), the combination achieves the most musical and natural-sounding distortion.
4. DigiTech Hot Head Distortion, $49.95
One look at the orange-colored Hot Head and you’ll think you’re seeing double next to the BOSS DS-1, but that’s where the similarities end. The Hot Head has more gain and level output, more aggressive mid-range and somewhat of a rounder, fuller tone. I find the Hot Head takes a little more tweaking because of its low and high tone controls, but once you find its sweet spot, it’s a grungy and thick distortion.
5. Modtone MT-DS Speedbox Distortion, $49.95
The Speedbox is an old-school-sounding distortion, so I’ve included it as a tip of the hat to classic rock and metal players. It has that Randy Rhoads Blizzard Of Oz tone, and it nails that eighties modded-Marshall amp tone, too. The Speedbox is edgy and has tons of gain, so it will take a strong picking hand and proper muting on your part to control its chaos but you’ll find the tone rewarding.
Honorable Mention: DeltaLab RD1 Rock Distortion, $49.99
The RD1 is somewhat of a newcomer, and although I have yet to try one, I’ve been hearing some great sound clips from this pedal. DeltaLab seems to have made an articulate distortion that seems to do one job and does it well. Stay tuned; I’m sure I’ll be reviewing it soon.
Another thing to consider is that you can find great deals online for distortion pedals, and you can pretty much have your pick of tried-and-true ones like the original Pro Co Rat or Marshall Shredmaster and everything in between.
I’ve even seen great boutique distortion stompboxes starting at just $10! The trick is to be patient and know what you’re looking for because I can guarantee you someone is willing to let that pedal go for a song.
Paul Riario on Paul Riario:I try very hard to remain under the radar, despite being on camera as gear editor at Guitar World, but in this age of social media, it was only a matter of time before it had to come to this. So with that, I will make my blog painless and a quick and easy read so you can get on to more important things like practicing guitar and sweep picking, or if you’re like me, getting tiger blood transfusions and figuring out how to be Olivia Wilde’s boy toy. I will use this blog to inform you of things I find cool; like new gear I’m playing through and what I’m watching, reading or listening to at any given moment. So feel free to ask me anything that’s gear related — or if you have a problem with your girlfriend, ya know, life lesson stuff, I’m pretty good at that too — and I’ll do my best to answer or address it here.